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Employers that hire undocumented workers remain covered by the exclusive remedy provisions of New York's workers compensation law, the New York Court of Appeals has ruled.
According to Thursday's ruling in New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens v. Microtech Contracting Corp., the hospital contracted Babylon, N.Y.-based Microtech in 2008 to demolish a portion of the basement of the hospital's Flushing, Queens, location. For that job, Microtech hired Luis and Gerardo Lema, who had illegally immigrated to the United States from Ecuador.
The Lema brothers used a sledgehammer and a jackhammer to perform the demolition, records show. During their work, a metal chimney or flue dislodged from a wall, struck the men and injured them. The men were paid workers comp benefits by Microtech's comp insurer, which court records did not identify.
The men filed a personal injury suit against New York Hospital in August 2008, citing violations of the state's labor law, records show. The hospital later sued Microtech to recover damages it incurred in the Lema brothers' suit, contending that the brothers were injured because of Microtech's negligence and that Microtech violated New York's Immigration Reform and Control Act.
A New York appellate court ruled in favor of Microtech in 2011, finding that its use of undocumented workers did not prevent the company from being protected by the state's workers comp exclusive remedy rules, records show.
New York Hospital appealed, arguing that Microtech should not profit from violating New York immigration laws.
Microtech countered that it did not profit because it paid workers comp premiums to its insurer, and that exclusive remedy provisions should apply because New York workers comp law covers undocumented workers, records show.
The appellate division of the New York Supreme Court ruled in Microtech's favor. It held that finding in the hospital's favor would “effectively deny (Microtech) the economic protections it acquired under the workers compensation law in return for providing (the brothers) with compensation for their injuries” and “relieve (the hospital) of its responsibility to ensure a safe construction site for workers.”
The New York Court of Appeals — New York's highest court — upheld that lower court ruling on Thursday. In its opinion, the court found that Microtech could not be held liable for the brothers' tort action against New York Hospital because they did not suffer grave injuries that would have allowed them to pursue a tort suit against Microtech under workers comp exclusive remedy provisions.
“It is true that New York courts typically do not assist parties in taking advantage of their own wrongs ... or enforce illegal contracts,” the state high court said of Microtech's hiring of undocumented workers. “But these principles are beside the point in this case: we are not being called upon to enforce or recognize rights arising from an illegal oral employment contract between Microtech and the Lemas, and Microtech is not raising any such employment contract as a defense to common-law contribution or indemnification.”